Joburg street names reflect fascinating past

Denis Beckett writes a bi-weekly column for The Star called Stoep Talk.

Denis Beckett writes a bi-weekly column for The Star called Stoep Talk.

Published Feb 20, 2017


Amid the rush to rename, some relics provide a sense of continuity, writes Denis Beckett.

Marvellous strange stuff came up from the Stoep’s foray into Joburg street names. Concertinaed replies:

First, thanks for Lnden Street and Londn Road, Spingbok Street and Blebsok Street (I took a while to recognise Blesbok), Norht Road, Eats Road and a bunch more.

Second, sympathies to Albertina Sisulu Road – accused of jaggedness, exaggerating her clout (“twice times Beyers Naudé, and we don’t even have a Mandela Road”), confusing the GPS and trampling on historic names. Yoh, wicked road!

Here’s counsel for the defence: Jozi has a Mandela Bridge and that’s enough. The Great Man thing can be overdone, (thanks be he isn't the airport).

Albertina is a right person for a big road. She lived straight, lived decent, lived humble, helped people, stood rock-solid for freedom, hated no one, and was never said to slip hands into tills. Tellingly, the statue of her and Walter in Ntemi Piliso Street is modesty writ large, like Blondie and Dagwood in armchairs for kids to clamber on, no pomp or proud horse.

It’s as jagged as Main Reef Road, our most classic slice of history. Now we have twin east-west crazy-paving roads, a unique duet to be proud of.

Albertina ate 17 previous roads, but only three had missable names and two of them, Paarlshoop and Bezuidenhout, survive as suburbs. The third is Kitchener, who to modern eyes shows up as bloodthirsty even by the standards of his times (and he is left with half of his road anyway).

Thirdly, we revisit Anna Smith. She was the 1960s city librarian who, having decided it was a library’s job to excavate the unrecorded history of place names, gave herself the task, hunting down a jungle of descendants and family tales.

People don’t fill in forms with reasons for naming a street; they just do it. HB Marshall buys a patch of veld. His friend Simmonds measures it out and on his plan he jots names that come to mind, like Marshall and Simmonds and their friend Sam Fox.

In 1902 these names vanish. The streets become North First Street, East First Street, South Second Street, and so on, but public outcry occurs. Simmonds and Fox & Co are restored in 1904. Sixty years later, Anna enshrines a memoir on the naming and another half-century on, they’re still standing, sharing the honours with some previously overlooked parts of history. That’s continuity.

Patterns are everywhere. Belatedly, I twig that Forest Town’s streets are forests: Sherwood, Epping, etc, all British. Rosebank’s admirals were equally British until a laatlammetjie road accommodated South Africa’s Admiral Biermann. Town has Quartz, Claim and Nugget together; how does “Polly” complete that quartet? Sleuth Anna reckons it should have been “Dolly’, a mining tool, but someone’s handwriting wobbled.

And African names? Anna says there were “a few suburbs” (Illovo and Kyalami?) and “some streets even in white areas”. That seems to mean Swazi Street, Zulu Street and Xosa Street (sic), all in Northcliff.

Astonishing to register that Emmarentia, with its African rivers, Kei and Komati and Kafue and all, sounds out of keeping in an African city. Even Roosevelt Park’s artists – Anton van Wouw, Hugo Naudé – strike a blow for Africa.

The city engineer in 1930 planned another – Moshesh and Cetewayo Avenues in Houghton. But no, he was defeated for the First and Second of failed imagination.

The Post Office hated number streets, largely in vain. 148 First Ave/St/Rds grace today’s Jozi, but at least there are postcodes. If the suburb is illegible, the postman has a clue.

Thanks, numerous Stoepers; nice flashmob co-operation in this.

* Beckett is a writer and journalist. His Stoep Talk column appears in The Star on Mondays and Fridays.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Star

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